Clover making a comeback

Posted March 23, 2012, at 11:38 a.m.

Proponents of organic lawn care are pushing to bring clover back to wide use as a lawn plant, mixed with more conventional turf grasses. They point to clover’s benefits, which include its ability to withstand drought, thrive in poor soil and supply nitrogen to other plants. White Dutch clover used to be common in lawns. But once petrochemical-based weed killers were introduced after World War II, that started to change, said Paul Tukey, founder of the nonprofit organization SafeLawns.org and author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual.” The synthetic products got rid of the weeds, but they also killed the clover.

America fell in love with the ideal of a flawless grass lawn, and clover wasn’t part of that picture, Tukey said. Clover came to be looked down on as a weed, something that marred a lawn’s uniformity and put children at risk by attracting bees.

Now, however, interest is growing in more natural ways for caring for lawns. And that’s bringing clover back into the spotlight.

Clover has much to recommend it as a lawn plant, said Melinda Myers, a horticulturist and author of more than 20 gardening books, including “The Ohio Lawn Guide.” Probably its biggest benefit is its ability to fix nitrogen, which means clover is its own little fertilizer factory. Clover takes nitrogen from the air, converts it to a form plants can use and eventually releases it to the surrounding soil.

In fact, clover is nature’s way of healing soil that’s nitrogen-deficient, Myers said. That’s why it tends to move into areas with poor soil, often to the homeowner’s chagrin.

That nitrogen-fixing ability can go a long way toward eliminating the need to fertilize, Tukey said. Say you had a lawn that was 5 percent clover. If you left your grass clippings on the lawn after you mowed, the clover and the clippings together would supply all the nitrogen your lawn needed once the lawn was established, he contended.

That’s better for the earth as well as the wallet, Tukey said.

Clover also has deep roots that help it tolerate dry conditions, so it stays green long after the grass has turned brown. If it’s mixed in fairly evenly with grass, Myers said, it can keep a lawn looking good even at the height of summer, without the need to water.

Another of clover’s attributes is something of a mixed blessing: its flowers’ attractiveness to bees.

Bees — especially honeybees — are important pollinators of many food crops. Clover supports imperiled bee populations, and it also helps vegetable gardeners by bringing bees to their yards, Tukey said. But some people fear bees, he said, and a small part of the population is severely allergic to their stings.

However, he noted that clover blooms heavily for only a couple of weeks a year, and the flowers can be kept in check with frequent mowing. The rest of the growing season, it blooms intermittently.

Clover has other drawbacks. Probably the biggest is its tendency to spread and form patches, especially in poor soil.

Those patches “might be an annoyance to some people,” said Joe Rimelspach, a plant pathologist at Ohio State University who specializes in turf grasses. “It’s kind of in the eyes of the beholder.”

Clover also doesn’t hold up as well to heavy foot traffic as grass. Myers said it might not be the best choice for a play area such as the ground under a swing set, although it should be fine in the rest of the lawn.

Clover’s leaf form is different from grass, too. A lawn with a mix of grass and clover has a more varied texture and tends to look bumpier than an all-grass lawn. “It’s not necessarily the easiest thing to have a game of soccer on,” Myers said.

However, that bumpiness has diminished with the development of microclover, a type of white clover that has been bred to grow smaller and mix in better with grass.

Microclover produces smaller leaves and grows closer to the ground, said Rick Myers, sales manager for DLF-USA, the U.S. branch of the company that developed the plant. Unlike regular clover, it stays below the top of the grass, so it’s not as obvious in a lawn, he said.

Myers said he’s has had a microclover-grass mix in his own lawn for about four years. “If you were 10 feet away from my lawn … you can’t even see any microclover in it,” he said.

Microclover also spreads more easily, instead of forming the patches that some people consider unsightly, Myers said. What’s more, he said, its flowers present less of a problem. They’re smaller, fewer in number and bloom for a shorter period, he said.

Good Nature, a Northeast Ohio organic lawn-care company, has been using microclover in some of its clients’ lawns for two or three years, sales manager Dan Norris said. It recently planted two lawns in Rocky River with a microclover-grass seed mix called Earth Turf, and it has renovated several other lawns by overseeding with the mixture, or spreading the seed over the existing grass.

So far the company has seen good results from the microclover mixes, and the clients say they like the look, Norris said.

Response has been more mixed from do-it-yourselfers who have bought the seed mix from Good Nature to overseed their own lawns, however. Norris said some have reported that the microclover was taking over their grass. He said that indicates the soil is short on nitrogen — a problem he suggests remedying with an organic fertilizer so the grass can better compete.

Either microclover or old-fashioned white Dutch clover can be planted in a new lawn or added to an existing lawn by overseeding. Lawns can be overseeded either with straight clover seed or a mix of clover and grass seed, Myers said.

White Dutch clover seeds are widely available, especially from stores that supply seed to farmers. Microclover seeds are a little harder to find, but you can buy a microclover-grass mix from Good Nature (330-836-9800) or order it online from such sources as Amazon.com.

Good Nature’s mix for new lawns is $144 for a 25-pound bag, enough to cover 3,000 square feet. Its overseed mix is $67.80 for a 5-pound bag, which covers 1,000 square feet.

Tukey and Myers argue that the expense of adding clover to a lawn will be made up quickly in savings on fertilizer and water.

“Isn’t that the environmentally sustainable way to go?” Tukey said.

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